The Queen, the Pope and Enoch Powell

by Philip Jones

Papal jurisdiction was the subject of a memorable letter to The Times by Enoch Powell (then an Ulster Unionist MP) published on 24th March 1982, on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Great Britain.

Powell concluded that it is ‘constitutionally and logically impossible for England to contain both the Queen and the Pope’, on account of their conflicting claims of authority.  The Queen is ‘on earth the Supreme Governor of the Church of England’, the Pope is ‘Christ’s Vicar upon the earth’.

It is significant that the word earth is used twice.  Powell sees authority in territorial rather than functional terms.

The letter implies that the Pope’s claim includes a claim of territorial jurisdiction over England.  However, canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law 1983 describes the Pope as ‘Vicar of Christ and pastor of the Universal Church on earth’.  In that capacity, the Pope enjoys ‘supreme, full, immediate and universal ordinary power in the Church’.

Thus canon 331 does not exactly describe the Pope as Vicar of Christ upon the earth.  It does not claim a political jurisdiction over the earth.  The Pope’s authority is over the Church, rather than over the earth.  His jurisdiction is limited to the Church.

Canon 747 reinforces this point.  It provides that the Church ‘has the innate duty and right to preach the Gospel to all nations, independent of any human power whatever … to announce moral principles, including those pertaining to the social order, and to make judgments on any human affairs’.

This account of papal jurisdiction makes clear that it is religious, not political.  It extends no further than the proclamation of the Christian religion, as the Church defines this.

It may, of course, be objected that there can be no dichotomy between the religious and the political.  The Pope’s claim to be Vicar of Christ is religious.  The Church’s duty to proclaim the Gospel is likewise a religious duty, derived from the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations.  However, the Church’s ability to proclaim the Gospel to all nations is relevant to the governments of those nations.

To this extent the Church’s right to preach the Gospel is a political question, as well as a religious one.  The duty to proclaim the Gospel is a religious matter.  The right to proclaim the Gospel in a particular nation is a political matter.

The political right of the Church to proclaim the Gospel, asserted in canon 747, is based on the principle of religious freedom, not any claim of territorial jurisdiction.  Canon 11 of the 1983 Code makes clear that ‘merely ecclesiastical laws bind [only] those baptised in the Catholic Church or received into it’.  Canon 748(2) is emphatic that ‘Persons cannot ever be forced … to embrace the Catholic faith against their conscience’.

This answers Powell’s suggestion that the Pope’s claim to be Vicar of Christ conflicts with the Monarch’s supremacy over the Church of England.  The Church of England is obviously not part of the Roman Catholic Church.  Thus members of the Church of England are not expected to observe Roman Catholic laws or embrace the Catholic faith, unless they freely choose to do so.

The Monarch likewise permits her Catholic subjects to practice their religion.  The Pope makes no political claim on England, only a religious claim.  The Monarch makes a political claim on her Catholic subjects, but no religious claim.  A conflict of territorial claims is avoided by mutual acceptance of the principle of religious freedom.

Acceptance of religious freedom resolves political difficulties but not religious ones.  The real difficulty between the Monarch and the Pope lies not in any political claim over England, but in the Roman Catholic religious teaching that the Church of England, of which the Monarch is Supreme Governor, is not part of the Catholic Church.

It must be remembered that the Code of Canon Law was not promulgated until 1983, the year after Powell wrote his letter.  However, the Code itself is based on the teaching of the second Vatican Council, which dates from the 1960s.